Next Tuesday the NBA draft lottery goes down, and with it, the hopes and dreams of nearly half the league’s fan bases. Some people think the draft is an open and honest random drawing. Some people think it’s a total fix, rigged by the league and it’s business interests.
The truth is, it’s the karma, stupid. Every franchise has skeletons in their closets, just as every franchise has been wronged in some way. Skeletons + grievances + ping pong balls = cosmic justice. Let’s look at this year’s lottery wannabes’ recent history, recent karma, and the likelihood of them moving on up or not; the number in parentheses is how many balls that franchise has. In the lottery drawing. Literal balls, not figurative. Perv.
DETROIT PISTONS (7)
History: Detroit is the permafrost of the low end of the lottery thanks to years of being awful about being lousy. From 2010-2015, the Pistons won 27-32 games every year, then broke character by breaking .500 two years ago and winning 37 last season. That lands an organization on the NBA’s treadmill of doom, and it’s why Detroit’s highest pick all those years was Greg Monroe seventh in 2010.
They’ve also had a couple #8 picks in that time (Brandon Knight; Stanley Johnson) and a #9 (Andre Drummond) — nothing to write home about. It’s been 14 years since Motor City moved up in a lottery, when they infamously passed on Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a dynasty in favor of the Serbian post-Kardashian Lamar Odom.
The last time Detroit picked first overall was 1970, when they landed a kid out of St. Bonaventure named Bob Lanier.
Karma: Depends, as much of life does, on who you think is pulling the strings.
If the league rigs the process, the Pistons have no chance at moving up. Overlord Stan Van Gundy was always a thorn in former commish David Stern’s imperial side, and current boss Adam Silver has shown through actions and comments the only politics he cares about are whichever don’t threaten profit margins. So SVG saying of Donald Trump “I don't think anybody can deny this guy is openly and brazenly racist and misogynistic. We have just thrown a good part of our population under the bus, and I have problems with thinking this is where we are as a country”? Not the sort of thing the league is likely to reward.
However, if you believe in a higher power, something beyond the reach of humanity, then Detroit’s annual refusal to tank and Van Gundy using his position to speak truth to power, or at least to speak it to those ostensibly reporting on that power while so many others with platforms stay silent, are reasons to hope that faith recognizes and rewards righteousness.
Judgment: Gonna be some lumpy coal in Detroit’s lottery stocking come Tuesday.
CHARLOTTE HORNETS (8)
History: Up and down, up and down: the Hornets have alternated between disappointing and pleasantly surprising in recent years. Eight first-round picks in the past six drafts have yet to yield transformative talent. They picked second in 2012 and fourth a year later and ended up with Michael Kidd-Gilchirst (missing Anthony Davis by one pick and missing out on Bradley Beal and Damian Lillard) and Cody Zeller (instead of Steven Adams or a Euro project named Giannis Antetokounmpo). It might be best if the Hornets don’t jump into the top-three; the last couple times they did, in ‘04 and ‘06, they drafted Emeka Okafor (just missing out on peak Dwight Howard) and Adam Morrison (just missing out on an entire draft class who weren’t Adam Morrison).
Karma: The Hornets once had four years in a row of top-five picks (1989-92). They’ve had top three picks this century, any number of top-ten picks, and pretty much nothing to show for it. In 2005 they took ex-Knick Raymond Felton fifth overall. I’d like to decree that singular act enough of an offense to bring the Charlotte organization bad lottery karma till the mountains collapse and tumble into the sea.
But really, it’s not fair to hate on the Hornets for that pick. If you look over that draft’s first round, after Chris Paul, the next highest career win shares are a neck-and-neck race between Deron Williams and David Lee. Did you know: Felton’s career win shares of 37.3 are identical to the career total of the player the Knicks took in that same first round. Who was he? No peeking! Also, did you know: both those ex-Knicks fall a tenth of a win share short of another ‘05 lottery pick’s career total, a guy who hasn’t been in the league the past three seasons. Hint: it ain’t J.J. Barea.
Judgment: It is a daily struggle for any Knick fan who endured the career of Michael Jordan to not succumb to the paranoia that MJ will always come out ahead of the Knicks. But as the 21st century keeps on keeping on, it looks more and more like that hex is more truly the property of the Chicago Bulls and not their greatest player ever. The architect of those Chicago threepeats, Jerry Krause, died about six weeks ago; he was—to his chagrin—infamously and somewhat inaccurately linked to a supposedly anti-Jordan quote: “Players and coaches alone don’t win championships. Organizations win championships.”
Under Jordan, Charlotte has never been a threat to win it all on the court. They don’t feel like a karmic threat to win the draft lottery, either. May your franchise forever suck, Michael Jeffrey Jordan. May your grandchildren forget your name. May your deeds rust and crumble into dust. May Frank Kaminsky be as good as it gets for you and yours.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (11)
History: The Pels have twice drafted in the top three, and each time they hit a home run, nabbing Chris Paul in 2005 and The Brow in 2012. They’ve needed to max out those picks, because while New Orleans has also done a great job with lower first-round picks who all ended up rumored to sign with New York or who did (David West; J.R. Smith; Cole Aldrich; the legend of Josh Harrellson), late lottery picks haven’t turned out all that well for the Pelicans, i.e. Julian Wright and future Knick Austin Rivers. This year, they’ll either land a top-three pick or have to send a pick between 10 and 13 to Sacramento due to the midseason DeMarcus Cousins/Buddy Hield trade. It wasn’t the first time those two crossed paths.
Karma: The fact that New Orleans traded away the antagonist and welcomed the victim of this testicular percussion can only be smiled upon by the basketball gods. They’re one dynamic guard away from a thousand NBA Twitter love letters and torrid League Pass affairs. The franchise could be established forever in one fell swoop (“forever” don’t mean shit to the NBA, though). Cousins and Davis could end up a twin towers for the ages, a la Tim Duncan and David Robinson rather than Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson. Or Patrick Ewing and Bill Cartwright. The Big Easy would be happy, and if New Orleans is happy, the rest of us probably are, too. Their joy seems contagious and non-threatening.
The trade for Cousins added intrigue but also complication to the Pelicans as far as X’s and O’s, as they must now figure out how to play two traditional centers together in an era when most teams are moving away from relying even on one. They also inherited all the complexities of Boogie’s karmic energy. Was he the victim of a Sacramento culture that makes the Knicks look stable by comparison? Was he to blame for leading the dysfunction, or at least being the wind beneath its wings? How you answer that question affects what kind of karma you think New Orleans is bringing to the table.
Judgment: Before camps formed to debate the value of Russell Westbrook’s MVP season for a team that nearly got swept out of the first round, the question of Cousins’ value and ultimate meaning as a King was the Codex Seriphinianus of NBA narratives. You don’t just trade for that guy and figure all the psychic energy that’s swirled around him for years suddenly disappears harmlessly. New Orleans has compounded complexity on top of complexity. The rule of three requires them to pick somewhere around 10th or 11th, adding a guard with big-time question marks, and hoping to catch a break.
DALLAS MAVERICKS (17)
History: Believe it or not, last year’s 33-49 Mavs were the worst Dallas team since the 20th century. Since 2000-01, they’ve made the playoffs every season but 2013 and last year. In ‘13 they picked 13th and selected Bill Laimbeer 2.0., a.k.a. Kelly Olynyk, then traded his rights to the Boston Celtics for the rights to the 16th pick, Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira, along with two second-rounders: Russ Smith and the pick that eventually became Cleanthony Early.
Karma: After winning it all in 2011 the Mavericks got out ahead of the #ringzorbust learning curve early, jettisoning key players like Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea in a brazen attempt to rebuild a championship team on the fly. This was Tower of Babel-level hubris. Sadly for them, they ended up trading away what could have been a multi-year title defense and acquired a multi-year narrative re: “Which big free agents will spurn the Mavericks this time around?” The fingerprints of the basketball gods can be seen faintly on every single Larry O’Brien trophy. To trifle with providence is to invite damnation and eternal suffering. Damnation assumes many forms. Like your too-clever-by-half owner making poop jokes on cable TV.
Judgment: Dirk Nowitzki will make $25M next year if the team picks up his option (Funny how few “Dirk is hamstringing the franchise he claims to love!” takes there are compared to Kobe Bryant’s L.A. swan song). There’s speculation Nowitzki could decline the option and sign a smaller deal with another option year attached. If the Mavs pass the Knicks and leap into the top-three, it’s proof the gods prefer it when teams let their stars ride gracefully and honored into the sunset. If Dallas stays in the 9-12 slots and the Knicks move up? Pro sports is a copycat industry. Expect to see a ton of team executives slandering and lying about their best players in 2018.
SACRAMENTO KINGS (28)
History: Where oh where to begin? There are precious few organizations in all of sports, much less the NBA, that a Knick fan can ever look at and think “Whew. Guess I was born lucky rooting for my team instead of that joke of a circus.” The Kings are one of the few. They are essentially a lock to draft poorly. The last time they landed a franchise player, they spent his entire time there alienating him with losing basketball, failed rosters and an embarrassing front office (Porzingis parallel, anybody?). The last time Sacramento won a playoff series was 2004, or as its known according to the Knick calendar, the Year of the Fugazi.
Since then the Kings have been consistently bad, but never truly awful, which is truly awful. In 2009 they finished 17-65, just like the 2015 Knicks. They picked fourth in that draft, just like the 2015 Knicks. They took Tyreke Evans, who is not just like Kristaps Porzingis.
Karma: Sacramento keeps its pick if it’s 1,2,3 or 8,9 or 10. If it drops to 11, which is highly improbable but not impossible (this is the Kings, remember), the pick goes to Chicago. I think. See, somehow the Kings ended up owing this year’s pick to both Chicago and Philadelphia; because of the results of the 2016 lottery, the Kings can’t owe this year’s pick to both teams, so now they owe their 2019 first-rounder to the 76ers, perhaps because of the Stepian rule? If this year’s protected pick stays protected, the Bulls will get their second-round pick instead. Confused? Maybe this will help...although I read it five times and it may as well be Derrida.
Judgment: If God merely dislikes the Kings, then their decade-long drunken stumble-bumbling through the league’s dregs should continue unabated, meaning no way they move up, because there must always be a left coast mirror to the horror show that MSG puts out every year, so that we never forget suffering is universal yet dispassionate, the cross to bear of a loud and loyal fan base who deserve the opposite of what they get. If God straight-up hates Sacramento, Chicago’s picking 11th next month.
These are the least likely to get lucky lotto losers. Stay tuned for part two later this week, where we review the teams most likely to torture our nightmares the night of May 16!